Why Do Kids Ignore What I Say?

Kids often ignore what adults have to say. This causes parents and teachers to be frustrated. How do kids learn to ignore what adults say? We teach them to ignore us.
01/05/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

Kids often ignore what adults have to say. This causes parents and teachers to be frustrated. How do kids learn to ignore what adults say? We teach them to ignore us.

The way we teach them to ignore what we say is because our words are often empty. Words only carry power when they are backed up by action. How often have you heard yourself or another adult speaking to a child, issuing threats, hollering, pleading, asking repeatedly for the child to do something and getting nothing back from the child? This is because the child knows that your words mean nothing because there is no action backing them up. Some examples:

A child is watching TV or playing video games and the parent is calling him or her to the table for dinner. "Turn off the TV and that video game, dinner is nearly ready." The child ignores the parent and continues to watch and play. The child has been through this routine many, many times and because the parent is busy preparing dinner their attention is divided. The child knows the parent is going to keep asking and the child is going to keep ignoring until the last minute when the parent finally gets exasperated, raises their voice and insists the child comes to the table NOW! That tone of voice and the parents stopping what they are doing and standing still near the child communicates... I mean business! Now the child realizes the words mean something and he or she comes to dinner.

There is another way to handle this situation and give your words meaning and value. The key here is to make what you say the first time have meaning and value so the child listens to you the first time you speak to them. In order to accomplish this goal you have to discipline yourself and not allow your attention to be divided. When you want the child to turn off the TV/video game, stop what you are doing. Don't call out to the child to do something from another room. Go into the room with the TV and stand in front of it and tell the child it is time to come to the table for dinner and turn off the TV. Stand there and wait. If the child does not get up -- then act on your words and turn off the TV/video game yourself. Actions do speak louder than words. When your actions are in alignment with your words, your words take on real meaning to the child.

The same thing is true in the classroom. Teachers are incredibly busy and often very distracted by having to manage many kids at one time and teach content to them all at the same time. So teachers deal with having their attention divided in the classroom all day long and it is a challenge to manage it. However, if teachers get into the habit of speaking to children with divided attention and not backing up their words with actions -- those teachers are effectively training their students to ignore them. If a child in a third-grade classroom is wandering around the room and not focusing on his or her work, the teacher is well-served to stop what she is doing and deal with redirecting this child immediately. Then later, when this behavior happens again and the teacher speaks to the child, the child knows the teacher's words mean business.

I know how busy a classroom full of kids can become. However, if you are dealing with a chronically misbehaving child and want to really help the situation improve, you must discipline yourself to not respond to this child with divided attention. It may seem like a lot of work to do this but doing a half way job with disciplining such a child becomes more work in the long run.

The goal here is for parents and teachers to learn how to give meaning to their words by backing them up with actions so children learn to value what you say. It sounds so simple, yet it requires such self-discipline from the adult. When you act in alignment with what you say, you will teach children that your words have real meaning and they learn to respect what you say.

Remember... self-disciplined children come from being in relationship with self-disciplined adults.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at ltenag@gmail.com.


For more by Dr. Louis A. Tenaglia, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence and "tell me why," click here.

Lou Tenaglia is an educator, educational consultant, teaching coach and private counselor based in Doylestown, PA. You can contact him at ltenag@gmail.com.